Editor's Blog: Leslie Laments Steve Jobs's Push for Textbook-Free Schools

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Editor's Blog: Leslie Laments Steve Jobs's Push for Textbook-Free Schools

 

Steve Jobs's inflammatory comments at a Texas education summit earlier this week got me thinking.

 

Before he makes statements like, "This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy," Steve needs to do his research. Because he's living in a fantasy world if he thinks running schools like companies will solve all their problems. Giving a principal carte blanche to hire the best and fire the worst doesn't take into account a common problem: That the principals and other administrators might not be up to snuff themselves.

 

I was also reminded of an email I received a few months ago from a reader in Anchorage, a technology coordinator for a large high school. He told me in passing how he had to turn down a grant offer of 400 new MacBooks for his school because he simply didn't have the tech admin resources to manage all those shiny new machines. Can you imagine? It's like handing out cans of soup to people who are hungry, then refusing to give (or even lend) them a can opener. Kind of shines a different light on Apple's 1 to 1 program, doesn't it?

 

But beyond bashing unions and insulting teachers, Steve said something else that gave me pause. According to the eSchoolNews article:

 

Before his comments on teacher unions, Jobs told the crowd about his vision for textbook-free schools. In the future, he predicated, traditional textbooks would be replaced by online resources that could be constantly updated, much like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

"I think we'd have far more current material available to our students and we'd be freeing up a tremendous amount of funds that we could buy delivery vehicles with computers, faster internet, things like that," Jobs said. "And I also think we'd get some of the best minds in the country contributing."

 

While I applaud the idea of making the most current information available to all schoolchildren - and working toward ridding school texts of cultural and religious bias (or at least presenting all the sides) - the idea of textbook-free schools scares the crap out of me.

 

Here's why: Being able to look up anything, anytime on Wikipedia (and find a cogent, reliable answer) is truly amazing. But I've long feared that a side effect of this instant access to information will give young people, especially students, the mistaken idea that locating information online is the same thing as becoming educated. In various editorial capacities, I've had enough students contact me over the years asking me to answer questions that amounted to completing a term paper for them - or at least doing a substantial amount of research on a complex topic so they didn't have to.

 

Does it bother anyone else that primary school students might equate "doing research" with typing a search term into Google?

 

Plus, what's the deal with technology evangelists dissing books? I couldn't live without my Mac. But it just can't replace a paperback (or, for that matter, a newspaper or a magazine) on my train ride to work.

 

The Internet is a beautiful thing. So is technology. But education and learning are as much about critical thinking as they are about assimilating information. Steve Jobs, of all people, should know that.

 

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MacZiMiZer

I'm all for getting rid of textbooks, in high school and college. It isn't that hard to make students do research on a computer that requires more than a google search. In my freshman and sophomore year in college I had plenty of projects that made me go to the library and use their system (or access it from home) And then you still have to read through them, cite sources, etc. Eventually the whole "research" term will mainly refer to finding and creating new things, not looking up old things. But especially in college, textbooks have become cash cows for lazy companies (though there are a few good ones). For example, my mathematical modeling book right now gives horrible examples, very short sections and has no answers in the back for homework problems. So half the time not only am I not sure what to do, but even if I figure something out I have no way to know if I even did the right thing. The amount of paper and materials, shipping etc. wasted on moving so many textbooks around the country is a complete waste. It shouldn't cost a student $200 to buy a new physics book because the used ones don't have the five typos that were fixed. Not to mention any given week I really only need one or two sections of the book with me for class and homework etc, yet I am forced to carry the entirety of every book. Not to mention indexes often don't help you find quite what you're looking for, where as a digital searchable textbook, if I put in a word, I can skim through every itterance of it as opposed to where the editors assumed I would want to see it. And as for high schools, I know way to many people who beyond checking email and such are at a loss, and often are doing simple things that slowly harm their computers (like using windows heh but that's another topic) and this would make them be on it more creating more time they would tinker with and find out how to use and fiz their own problems (sorry geek squad your days are numbered if people become patient). So for high school and up I'm all for digitizing, especially since with the money I'll end up spending on textbooks I would have been able to buy a macbook pro or maybe a mac pro ($300 * 2 semesters * 4 years = $2400, damn and sometimes its 500 for the semester if I'm going heavy on the engineering classes), so why not have laptop programs in colleges where students who can't afford to pay up front simply dish out the 300 a semester they would be popping for books and get a laptop they can keep at graduation. And at $10 or $15 a digital textbook they'll just have to skip a keg party or two.

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swokm

1. I'm not sure that criticizing the overall performance of the teachers unions and tenure in K-12 exactly equates to "running schools like companies." In any case, there are many successful, satisfying jobs in corporate America: some are unionized and some are not. So what on earth do you mean? Eliminating unions might make a K-12 school more like a non-union company... or not. It's not as though schools with powerful local unions are run exactly the same as trade jobs in industry with powerful local unions. Also orthagonal to the point is the idea that making it easier to get rid of teachers that are poor employees (or just bad in the classroom) means you then can't get rid of problem administrators? Why would that follow?
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Your "tech administrator" who had to "turn down a grant offer of 400 new MacBooks for his school because he simply didn't have the tech admin resources to manage" is a perfect example. Unless there are some extenuating circumstances that you or this "administrator" failed to mention. He/she needs to be fired. Now. I'm sorry, but I can't think of ANY BETTER illustration that the culture of simply ignoring incompitence or underperformance in education. This needs to change. Couldn't find a way to accept 400 free state-of-the-art laptops? And that is your example of why you are AGAINST Steve's remarks?
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From my peronal experience (I'm the only individual that did NOT work as a teacher w/MA in my family), the problems that drive almost every truly talented educator I've met to leave are incompetent employees that have been ignored and allowed to create petty tyrannies -- either at the administrative level, or in the classroom (which, yes, is also an administrative failure). The unions, as neutered today as they are, have failed to help these good teachers while providing a layer of insulation for the root cause of the problem. Now only one person in my family is still a teacher, and it wasn't the poor pay or having to be creative and stretch resources that drove the rest out. It was insane politics on a level that would not be tolerated anywhere that I'm aware of in the corporate world. Steve can do all the research he wants; not being able to eliminate problem employees in such an inefficient work culture where resources are already thin is a problem. Don't run a school like a business, run it like a competent school.
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2. I can only assume that this is some sort of sarcasm that I'm not getting: "a side effect of this instant access to information will give young people, especially students, the mistaken idea that locating information online is the same thing as becoming educated"
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Oh, no -- the horror of plebes having unrestricted access information! How will their small brains ever sort it all out (without direct assistance from the REAL intellectuals)?
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OK, so that's not really fair; you were speaking of students. Well, I still don't buy your premise in the SLIGHTEST. Find me a high school graduate between 25-45 that things the instant access to the Cliff Notes version of "The Odyssey" is the EXACTLY the same as a semester of literature class on the same subject. How does changing the medium from a shipped paper product to an electronic product make this some new terrifying universal truth.
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Please tell me this is some running joke amongst editors.
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3. You "applaud the idea of making the most current information available to all schoolchildren" Good, me too. Have you considered the incredible cost (and environmental) savings involved in electronic, print-only-if-necessary books that never get ripped or dog-eared or are too few, or cannot be taken home, or need to suck a good day out of every school year in some bizzarre ritual of having the students make/buy bookcovers?!
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Heck, you could probably save enough to hire a competent replacement Tech Admin from industry to replace your friend in Alaska. Or, you could use that money to print new copies of the very latest version of a particular text EVERY YEAR. You could recycle, or even let the student KEEP that book.
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4. "school students might equate 'doing research' with typing a search term into Google" Sure. That's why that have those.... teachers... er, teaching the students learning skills and checking the references in their papers. Again, how is this new? I'm fairly certain that if my endnotes in high school papers on Conrad and included "3. Dude, pretty sure I read it in Penthouse Forums, in March. And so it has to be, like, TOTALLY true!" would (among other things) have involved a stern lecture on appropriate research sources and citations thereof. Nothing Jobs stated would imply that he equates teaching with texts. Actually, he states that cheaper/better texts frees funds for other things... like individuals and methods to teach those texts.
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But basically what really irritated me most about this Chewbacca-esque argument (see Wikipedia...or not... basically an amusing pop reference to "non sequiturs") is the trite admonition "education and learning are as much about critical thinking as they are about assimilating information. Steve Jobs... should know that".
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Oh please. I am extremely confident that you can do MUCH better, given this same factual information, just by following your own advice.
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Sincerey,
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a non-degreed professional, that learned his profession via freely available online information parsed by that small part of my brain that -- occasionally -- thinks critically. None of which would have happened if five or six of the best individuals I'll ever meet hadn't forcefully beaten that ability and interest to use it into my skull as standout teachers in my own K-12 years
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PS. I miss them much, think of them often, and will do what I can to help retain their modern contemporaries in the public school system -- even a the expense of their fellow, less capable or interested, union members.

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Dave S.

I am now a retired Science teacher who also managed the Apple and Mac computers in a secondary school in BC for 20 yrs ('84 to 2004). I have had excellent essays from students who have used the internet to good advantage in their research, AND I have had students find an article on their topic, send it to the printer and hand it in for marking ... along with the ads and the URL printed at the bottom of each page...8-) and everything inbetween.
I have had my typing students do a written 'speed test' at the begining of the course and then compared it with their final typing speed test at the end, often 2 or 3 times faster AND way easier to read.

And I have had dozens of teachers use the computers in the labs, but NONE of them I would classify as BAD teachers. Inexperienced, unsure, often keen to try something new that doesn't work out as expected, often doing things differently than I would do them , but never BAD.

In my 35 yrs of teaching, I have rarely seen anyone who is a BAD teacher that stayed in the system ... the kids will drive them out after a few yrs. I am a great "Steve" fan, but he is wrong on this one. Every teacher has a different style as does every student... but in their own way, they are all trying to do a decent, if not good or great, job.
As a school union rep, I have also seen huge examples of principal favoritism and harassment of teachers - unions are STILL needed.

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Jeffrey

I think schools should be run more like business. Principals should be allowed to can bad teachers and administrators should be allowed to can bad principals. It's the real world... it's another form of evolution... and makes us all better. As far as getting caught up about standardized tests.... kids should be able to pass them. I've not seen one but the fact that kids aren't getting the "Basics" down is totally screwed up. You need a baseline for education. If you don't get this then you don't move on. For those posting here getting so caught up in the "schools only teach for the test"..... THAT's what they're supposed to be doing. Not spending more time teaching some idiot Liberal agenda. Now don't get me wrong... I don't think schools should be removing art, music, and athletics from the curriculm either... kids benefit greatly from such exposure... just as I did. But it's not the schools job to teach a kid how to think... that happens on it's own.... I think many of these teachers bitch a moan because the basics take away from pushing classes that are actually teaching "ideals".... that's for family to do.


My 2 cents for whatever it's worth

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Jeffrey

Leslie,
You're getting totally caught up in semantics regarding books in schools. I think it would be great to get rid of them. I remember in 6th grade... playing with the first Trash 80 (Tandy TR80)... and computers in college, thinking how nice it would have been to have it all right there. Now this will totally put a lot of printers out of business if/when this finally happens. But there's no reason the publisher's can't keep making $ by charging usage fees to access the online textbooks (charging the schools that is... and students in College). So some commerce is still there but the information you're accessing... well.. it's the same just updated more easily. If you're a big environmentalist then you're saving a ton of trees in this process. The information stays the same... but the medium is changed. And as more and more information is transferred from print to computer.... what's the difference when it comes to doing research. I think you're being too much of a "purest" about it all. Maybe you are thinking a little too nostalgically about it. But you're right about sitting down with a good book. Nothing beats it. Maybe you should think of it like this. When TV came into the picture everyone predicted the demise of radio.... never happened. If textbooks finally make the next logical step to digital the same will hold true I'm sure.


You're also making a HUGE mistake by making the next leap in assuming that getting knowledge from a computer does not equate to an "Education"... I couldn't disagree with you more. Quit getting yourself so caught up on a bunch of purist nonsense. Medium doesn't matter... it's the information that counts. Change is inevitable in everything.... we get old when we can't change as fast.... or at all.

take care...Jeffrey

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Anonymous

Your blog is right on. Schools are NOT businesses but people would like them to be. We DO need better teachers and administrators, but the current 'no child left behind' nonsense will not succeed. Rote memorization, teaching only to the test, rewarding teachers for student achievement as measured by tests are recipes for a nation of unthinking drones. Real education teaches people to think for themselves as you stated so well. How many people do you know who can do that? But almost everyone went to school.

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broken925

I don't think that Steve Jobs was suggesting that his ideas were the panacea our ailing public school systems need to follow to succeed. Of course there are more things wrong with schools today than unions and bad teachers, but it's a start (this free-flow of thought and suggestions).

The only thing that makes what he said different than the casual living room musings of a lot of us out here is that he's a public figure speaking in a public forum. Does that mean that we lend more weight to what he has to say? No, but it opens up the floor to new and stimulating debate. Something that's long overdue.

I've had personal experience with teachers and unions. I've been married to a teacher of almost 10 years and I have been a union member for the past... Oh, well, since before you were born. While I can't make blanket statements or claim that this is how it is across the country, this is the state of both (teachers and unions) as I have experienced.

Teachers: Not all teacher are bad. In fact, most I know are great people doing great things in the classroom. But a few bad apples can spoil the bunch, or at least the "image" of what a teacher is today. I've seen the ones that recycle lesson plans year after year (either because of outdated text books or just plain laziness). I've seen the ones that districts hire just because they coach a sport even though they can't teach their way out of a paper bag. You can't turn on the news without hearing of illicit affairs between teacher and student. So is there a need to be able to get rid of the "bad apples", most definitely, but this isn't the only thing wrong today.

Unions: I belong to one of the largest unions in the world (not to mention my teacher spouse who is also a union member) and I can say from personal experience that union's are NOT there for the benifit of whatever orginization their members work for - they're there for the members ONLY. And not the "good" members, the ones doing their jobs, but they're there for the screw-up's. The only way a union has power is if the members need them. It's not like it was when unions were first established, with long hours, no pay, and dangerous work. (yes, there are still those types of jobs out there, but don't jump down my throat trying to justify that your job sucks and you get paid crap. I'm talking generalizations here not specifics.) Without those aforementioned screw-up's, unions would just sit around twiddling their thumbs collecting your dues. Collective bargaining isn't even a real factor anymore, not with the skyrocketing cost of health care, but that's another topic in and of itself. What I'm saying is this: Unionization in it's basic form is a good thing, but the way they operate in today's workplace can and do cause workplace stagnation.

Maybe schools today can't be run on a typical business model, but lessons can be learned from those business's that do succeed. Every aspect of the school hierarchal system, from the school board to the chalk board, needs to have competant people without agendas, other than the eduaction of our youth, foremost in their minds.

Factors such as parental involvement, socio-economic issues, generational attitude... all of these play a role in the system and are beyond the control of either teachers or unions. So laying blame is impossible.

Are online text books the way to go? Maybe. Are principals with more power part of the solution? I'm not sure. What I am sure of is this: SOMETHING needs to be done, and by Steve Jobs making the statements that he has, he's brought the converstion out of the living room and into the open.

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Leslie Ayers

The union issue is so fraught with, well, complexity...That's why I focused instead on the other stuff Steve said that day. :-) I have a problem with "young people today" (and feel really old making statments like that) who seem to think that the point of technology is only to make it easier/faster to get the stuff they don't want to do done, so they have more time to play video games. I know it's a bad stereotype of young people, and I don't think it's true everywhere. But it's true for a lot of kids, which is why I'd hate to have books go away. Because, personally, I find it easier to connect with a book than with a computer. I guess that's the troglodyte in me!

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Allan Trewin

I agree with Leslie. RESEARCH is going to PRIMARY SOURCE MATERIAL (not text books) and getting the facts. Wikipedia, et al, are compilations of selected facts with the danger of being taken out of context. Internet citations may not even accurately quote the cited material. Furthermore, what happened when the page is "updated" or removed? What happened to the supposed "facts" contained therein? RESEARCH is supposed to be a search for truth, not a sifting of opinions.

I have done dissertation research and a citation out of some internet site will generally be rejected at the graduate level out of hand because of the reasons given above.

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Anonymous

You're correct, mostly.

Analytic, and evaluative skills need to be taught, as do good library research skills. And as part of the educational process kids need to learn how to qualify the sources of the information that they get. I.e. what are the bonafides/credentials of the writer of this readily available information. Can I trust his/her conclusions. One of the weaknesses of the web, is that anybody with an opinion can write. That's fine, but it may not be an intellectually responsible posting when building an intellectually responsible term paper.

Google started a project a couple years ago to digitize all the great works, and ran into copyright, intellectual property issues. Until we evolve a better system of managing online resources,the need for libraries won't go away. I think it is a "solveable" problem, but its not here yet. Some of the good " by subscription only" resources on-line aren't available to kids using the web for research. They're fee based, which goes back to your problem of running schools just like a business. The web is run like a business, and sometimes that is incompatible with intellectual pursuit.

The old system of the rich sponsoring the arts and learning leant itself to some problems, and our public school system was partially established to create a system in which the educators were not beholden to anyone. That too has strengths, and weaknesses.

Technology isn't ready to replace paper and ink skills, yet, internet will gradually overshadow the old methods. Steve Jobs speaks for the future, and you've just sounded a solemn warning of that future.

jf

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FERGUS SMITH

IF YOU THINK THAT TEXTBOOKS ARE FIT TO USE TODAY, YOU HAVEN'T BEEN PAYING ATTENTION. THEY ARE AN ABOMINATION OF INACCURACY AND A BLIZZARD OF USELESS INFORMATION.

OTHER THAN CURRENT EVENTS, ETC., SUBJECTS LIKE MATH, ENGLISH, PHYSICS, AND OTHER BASIC SCIENCES HAVE CHANGED LITTLE IN YEARS.

INSTEAD OF MAKING SMALL CHANGES TO GOOD OLDER TEXTBOOKS TO BRING THEM UP TO DATE, STUDENTS ARE BURDENED BY BOOKS WRITTEN BY COMMITTEE ACCORDING TO A SHOPPING LIST OF WHAT THEY SHOULD CONTAIN.

MY GRANDFATHER'S ALGEBRA BOOK WAS A BEAUTIFUL, CONCISE, SMALL TEXTBOOK THAT COVERED ALGEBRA THAT PEOPLE MIGHT NEED. IT WAS CLEAR AND EASILY UNDERSTOOD, THUS STUDENTS WOULD RETAIN THE USEFUL INFORMATION.

ALGEBRA TEXTBOOKS TODAY ARE SO IMMENSE AND OBTUSE THAT IT IS AMAZING THAT STUDENTS MIGHT RETAIN ANY ALGEBRA AT ALL.

JOBS HAS IT RIGHT.

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